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« The New Urban Planning: Look Upward, not Outward | Main | An Olympic Legacy: The Courage of an Aspirational Vision »

A Spectacle on Our Streets

Olympic Regent Street in London. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mabacam.

Here we are rapidly racing to the closing stages of the Olympics. It’s happening too fast with too much to absorb, but London continues to buzz with the excitement, drama and spectacle of the world’s greatest sporting festival. Already the pundits, skeptics and media are out speculating each other on what it all means. How do the Olympics change us? What is the overall meaning of the games? As summer finally arrives late for the party, the mind starts to wander and reflect on the hereafter. What happens to London after the closing ceremony, and what happens to the places and facilities so heroically created on time and on budget? Will there be an Olympic hangover? What does ‘LEGACY’ mean in the context of the games?

I have so far had the privilege to attend five Olympic events and experience first- hand a series of Olympic moments both at the events and, with the aid of technology, at parallel happenings at venues across the city. London is the only city to have hosted the modern Olympics three times, and at each hosting the city has sought to perpetuate, preserve and maybe now gently redefine this unique international event.

My overwhelming impression of London 2012 has been the genuine fun, the good humor, and the coming together of people from all over the globe to share and enjoy this enthralling experience. The records, endurance and even the fact that little old Great Britain has been taking home more than its share of records has been nice, but ultimately the elaborate cocktail of culture, media, sport, bars, business, and even bikinis is what leaves the most lasting impressions.

The best events for me have been free: the Cycling Road Race at Buckingham Palace, the Triathlon in Hyde Park, the Women’s Marathon on the Victoria Embankment. It’s not the 60,000 people squeezed into an Olympic Stadium. It is 200,000 or 1,000,000 people who shared the spectacle on the streets, squares, and parks of London.

If there is one legacy for me it is that the Olympics isn’t a stadium, or even several stadiums; it is an event that fills and takes over the whole city. I think London’s real legacy will be to redefine the modern Olympics as the total immersion of a city into the games combined with a willingness to embrace each and every event. The Olympics is a giant five-ringed circus, and the temporary nature of most of the venues seems entirely appropriate as real investments are used to create new public parks and lasting infrastructure improvements. These structures will regenerate our city. The money was not squandered on follies and gestures that have no hope of long term usefulness.

London 2012 will be transformational in the evolution of the modern Olympics and from now on we will be at ease with the temporary and invest in what needs to be permanent, while everything else, including the athletes, are packed up and shipped on to the next circus stage in Rio.

Ian Mulcahey
Ian Mulcahey is Co-Managing Director of Gensler London. As the leader of a multidisciplinary team of planners, architects, and urban designers, he's interested in creating compelling spaces that add to the richness of urban environments, and he recognizes the competing political, commercial, and social forces that influence urban planning and design. Contact him at ian_mulcahey@gensler.com.

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